Source: Washington Post (DC)
Author: Tim Craig, Washington Post Staff Writer
Published: Wednesday, January 28, 2004; Page B05
Copyright: 2004 Washington Post
Contact: [email protected]
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is seeking to change the way Maryland's justice system deals with substance abuse by making it easier for some drug offenders to get treatment instead of a criminal record.
Ehrlich, who last year became the first Republican governor in the country to sign a medical marijuana bill, is asking the General Assembly to pass legislation establishing guidelines for prosecutors who want to keep nonviolent drug offenders out of jail or off probation.
While the first phase of the program would be limited, Ehrlich said he hopes the approach, commonly known as diversion, would be the first step toward revamping the state's attitudes toward drug abuse.
"Twenty-five years ago, this would be a lot more difficult to do," Ehrlich said. "But attitudes about the war on drugs are changing."
The measure is winning bipartisan support in the General Assembly. States across the country are turning to drug treatment as a cheaper and more effective way of dealing with substance abuse.
Ehrlich's support also signals a growing willingness among Republicans -- who once demanded stiff sentences for drug crimes -- to adopt a more moderate approach to the problem. "What I am seeing is failure in what we are doing now. It is like throwing good money after bad because we are not getting good results," said Maryland Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R-Harford). "If you are going to throw money at something to fix it, throw money at something that works. They have a much better success rate with treatment then they do with keeping people in jail."
Some Republican lawmakers, though, expressed concern that such measures could undermine the nation's drug laws. "My constituents want law and order," said Sen. Richard F. Colburn (R-Dorchester), who is seeking to unseat U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest (R) in the March primary. Colburn added that he had not yet read the bill.
About one-fourth of the 23,000 inmates housed by the Maryland Department of Corrections and Public Safety last fall were incarcerated on drug charges, said Mark Vernarelli, the department's spokesman. While drug treatment can cost $1,000 to $7,000 for each patient, it costs as much as $43,000 a year to keep someone imprisoned, according to the state Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration.
While some counties offer such diversion programs as drug courts, administration officials say this would be the first structured, statewide program that ensures supervised treatment.
Under the program, prosecutors would be able to evaluate offenders to determine whether they can be successfully treated for drug abuse. Once candidates are identified, they would be referred to the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which would then assign them to a drug treatment facility. The program would also be open to prisoners seeking parole.
The prosecutor, who would be able to monitor an offender's progress, would then place the defendant's criminal charge on an inactive docket so it could be expunged after three years.
"It gives the individual a chance to engage in treatment and come back from treatment and not get slammed for it" when trying to get a job, said Alan Woods, director of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention.
The governor has included about $8 million in his budget, about half of which would pay for treatment slots for 98 adults and 310 juveniles to start the program.
The governor's capital budget, released yesterday, also calls for building a prison, causing some advocates of drug policy reform to question his commitment to reducing the inmate population. Advocates also worry that Ehrlich's drug treatment proposal gives too much discretion to prosecutors, meaning that some could continue to insist on placing most nonviolent drug users on probation or in jail.
But several Democratic lawmakers say Ehrlich should be applauded for his efforts.
"The concept . . . is something a lot of Democrats have been looking at for a long time and pushing for," said Del. Pauline H. Menes, a Prince George's Democrat who heads the House Special Committee on Drug and Alcohol Abuse. "But what is new is a Republican governor who has made promises to move in this direction, and has put money into the budget to get there."
Ehrlich Signs Marijuana Bill
Attitudes Ease Toward Medical Marijuana
Ehrlich Lowers Fine for Medical Marijuana Users